Illinois’ highest state court has sidestepped delivering a definitive
answer to the question of whether non-lawyers can represent corporations in
administrative law proceedings.
But justices of the Illinois Supreme Court have let stand an
appellate court’s finding that the city of Chicago can’t sidestep the need to
properly send ordinance violation notices by citing the appearance at an
administrative hearing by just anyone purportedly on behalf of a company the
city may be seeking to fine.
In a 4-3 opinion filed Feb. 17, the state high court ruled
the city of Chicago did not give a business sufficient notice of pending
ordinance violation charges.
At issue was an appeal of the dismissal of a lawsuit brought
against the city by property management firm Stone Street Partners.
The litigation stems from a 1999 order entered by the city
against the business over code violations at some of its buildings in Chicago.
According to court documents, notice of the violations was sent to the property
address, rather than to the business’ registered agent or business address, as city
ordinance requires. However, at the scheduled administrative proceedings over
the alleged violations, a man who was not an attorney appeared, purportedly on
behalf of Stone Street, and entered some written evidence, again supposedly on
behalf of the company.
The company was found guilty, and ordered to pay a $1,050 fine.
The fine went unpaid, however, as Stone Street later asserted it had no
knowledge of the administrative enforcement action against it, until the city
moved to register the judgment in Cook County court in 2009.
Stone Street challenged the ruling, but a Cook County judge
granted the city’s motion to dismiss. A state appellate panel affirmed portions
of the dismissal, but also overturned one count, saying Supreme Court rules
allowing non-lawyers to represent corporations in certain civil actions in
which damages of less than $10,000 are sought cannot be applied to city
administrative actions, because the administrative actions are not based on
either contracts or tort. Therefore, the appellate justices said, the
corporation must be represented by a lawyer in the proceedings, under the
Affirming the appellate court’s judgment were Chief Justice Lloyd
A. Karmeier, who wrote the opinion, as well as Justices Robert R. Thomas, Thomas
L. Kilbride and Rita B. Garman. Dissenting were Justices Charles E. Freeman,
who wrote an opinion, as well as Anne M. Burke and Mary Jane Theis.
In arguing the appeal, the city continued to maintain its
administrative proceedings do not require specialized legal background, but
also suggested the Supreme Court has the “inherent authority to regulate the
practice of law” and find the lay representation admissible, per Karmeier.
However, the majority determined it did not need to consider
the appropriateness of a layman representing Stone Street because the person, identified
as Keith Johnson, “did not represent Stone Street in any capacity.” His only
connection, per the opinion, was through Philip Farley, the now deceased
elderly father of Brian Farley, Stone Street’s lawyer and one of its members. The
elder Farley, having suffered a stroke, was not involved with Stone Street
While Johnson, also now deceased, did complete a form
indicating he was appearing on behalf of the corporation, he did not check any
of the four options for indicating his relationship to Stone Street.
“Even if one agreed with the city that the proceedings were
so rudimentary that no ‘trained legal mind’ was required,” Karmeier wrote, “the
bar for adequate representation is not so low that we will deem it satisfied by
someone who cannot make a check mark on the simplest of forms.”
The case is remanded to circuit court for future
Freeman’s dissent noted the majority did not address the
issue of unauthorized practicing of law — and had it, he would have held corporate
representation in this matter does not constitute practicing law — and also that
its opinion effectively negates the original fine.
The latter is problematic because although the city has
destroyed “most” of the administrative record relating to the fine, in
accordance with the Local Records Act, some records remain, enough that it is
not clearly established that Stone Street’s jurisdiction was not waived. Johnson’s
appearance at the Sept. 9, 1999, hearing is one thing, but Freeman said the
events of an Aug. 12, 1999, hearing also should be factored in determining the
merits of the original complaint.
“The majority’s conclusion is based on an incomplete record,
which requires the majority to engage in speculation, conjecture and assumptions
to arrive at its conclusion,” Freeman wrote. “Frankly, the minimal record we do
have raises more questions than it answers.”
According to court records, Stone Street was represented in the action by attorney Richard F. Linden, of Chicago.